Bunraku playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon had a bit of a thing about double suicides which feature in a number of his plays. Though these legends of lovers driven into the arms of death by a cruel and unforgiving society are common across the world, they seem to have taken a particularly romantic route in Japanese drama. Brought to the screen by the great (if sometimes conflicted) champion of women’s cinema Kenji Mizoguchi, The Crucified Lovers (近松物語, Chikamatsu Monogatari) takes its queue from one such bunraku play and tells the sorry tale of Osan and Mohei who find themselves thrown together by a set of huge misunderstandings and subsequently falling headlong into a forbidden romance.
Set in 17th century Kyoto, the story begins with a reminder that adultery is currently illegal and that the penalty is crucifixion of both parties. A samurai woman and a man servant are being paraded through the streets for having committed the double transgression of an extra-martial affair which also crosses class borders. We set our tale at the top printing house in the city where the most promising employee, Mohei, is being pulled from his sickbed to complete a particularly important order. At the same time, mistress of the house Osan receives an unwelcome visit from her brother who is once again in pecuniary difficulty. He wants her to ask her wealthy husband, Ishun, to lend him some more money to meet the latest mortgage payment on their family home. However, Ishun is a stingy old man and outright refuses. Mohei overhears the brother’s visit and offers to help but his idea to temporarily embezzle some of the money backfires when he’s caught.
To make matters worse, Ishun now has it in for Mohei as Ishun has been after the servant girl Otama who has been refusing his advances and finally lied to him by claiming that she and Mohei are secretly engaged. After Otama reveals Ishun’s true nature to Osan, they hatch a plan to confront him by swapping rooms so that when Ishun makes his nightly visit to Otama he’ll find his wife waiting for him instead and have to backdown for awhile. This backfires too when Mohei decides to escape and stops by Otama’s room to say goodbye only for another servant to find Mohei and Osan together there. Mohei flees but a rumour starts about his friendship with Osan and it’s not long before she’s stormed out too. Accidentally running in to each other the pair find themselves on the run and eventually falling in love, but this isn’t the sort of place where two people can just move to another town and disappear. The police and Ishun’s men are hot on their tail determined to try and prevent the impending scandal…
Life was pretty harsh in feudal Japan. In some ways Osan might be thought lucky – married off at a young age to a well connected and prosperous husband. Indeed, at the beginning of the film she doesn’t seem too unhappy though is obviously nervous to talk to her husband about her brother’s predicament. Ishun is not a good man though he is perhaps sadly typical of his petty samurai merchant class. He swaggers around complaining about having to pay for everything and won’t even lend any of his vast wealth to his own sister let alone his wife’s family. Though outwardly miserly he’s no problem promising fancy kimonos and even a house to Otama if she’d only consent to becoming his mistress. Something of a double standard then when his wife is accused of having affair with a servant merely by having been found in a compromising position alone in a room with another man.
Mohei, by contrast, is the archetypal loyal retainer. When ever a problem comes up he reminds himself that one needs to be a “good servant” – a sentiment he utters to Otama when she asks for his help to fend off Ishun. He doesn’t approve of the idea of her simply giving in, but thinks she ought to grin and bear it. Similarly when some of the female members of staff are sympathising with the samurai lady about to be crucified for love, Mohei agrees that he feels sorry for her but also that she’s broken a law and what is happening is simply a natural consequence. He’s the last sort of person you would expect this sort of thing to happen to, and yet, it does.
The irony is that nothing existed between the pair other than the loose friendship and loyalty of a mistress and a member of staff before this whole thing started. Their union is quite literally unthinkable, not only a relationship between a married woman and another man, but love across the class divides. Even if Osan were free, a marriage with Mohei would be considered a disgrace. When the pair face the hopelessness of their situation and decide on suicide, Mohei confesses his love which immediately changes Osan’s mind about dying. She’s fallen in love with him too, and now she wants to live. For her now there can be no life without Mohei. Though Mohei entertains the noble idea of handing himself in to the police and sending Osan back to Ishun who would doubtless be glad to cover up the affair and avoid a bigger scandal, he later finds himself unable to give her up. The pair cannot, and will not, deny their love even if it costs their lives. In this unforgiving world of harsh social justice, the only freedom left to Osan and Mohei is to ride proudly to their agonising deaths hand in hand and with beatific smiles on their faces.
In the end, two grand houses fall because of a series of coincidental misunderstandings and lapses of protocol. Envious of his position, another petty samurai is perfectly happy to manipulate the situation to take down Ishun fully knowing that it will mean the deaths of two people. In ordinary circumstances this passionate, romantic love would never be permitted to exist (or at least among this social class). Its blossoming is an impossible miracle that threatens the very foundation of the extraordinarily regimented society of the two people at its centre. Parents betray their children to protect these archaic laws and preserve their family “honour” but what honour could their possibly be in the denial of love and society that places standing above basic compassion?
Though not perhaps Mizoguchi’s most impressive effort, The Crucified Lovers is an impassioned attack on needlessly repressive social systems and the self centred shenanigans which perpetuate them. Unashamedly melodramatic and filled with a melancholy though passionate resilience, The Crucified Lovers is a tragic tale of true love torn asunder by a cruel and unforgiving world. It would be so easy to say this would never happen today, and yet…
The Crucified Lovers is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of Eureka’s Late Mizoguchi box set.
No trailer but here is a particularly beautiful scene from the film
And an introduction from Tony Rayns